Interview: Tinus Nel on a number of riders he worked with in MXGP

In this part of the interview, Tinus Nel discusses some of the riders he had the opportunity to work with in one way or another during his time in the Motocross world. The South African was kind enough to share his memories with us and he’s got quite a few! Of course, Nel was part of the Vangani Motocross team that was in the paddock for a number of years and helped many young riders who went on to have great careers.

Gatedrop: Out of the riders you worked with, who would you say had the best work ethnic?

Tyla (Rattray) has to rank up there, for sure. Even out of season, he would tackle huge challenges. I visited him at home in South Africa once, and on a whim, he entered for a bicycle race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. This is the route of the comrades marathon. He finished it , of course, but what was more remarkable was that another rider told me that Tyla had problems with his one pedal, and for some of the distance, he rode essentially using one leg.

There is one rider I must mention here, though, and that is Avo Leok. Although he was never in my team, he did live with us, and I could  see his training regime unfold day after day. Real ironman stuff. He would devise his own exercises that most would regard as impossible. I had a visit from some friends once, one of whom was a club-level soccer player. Avo invited them to go on a run, and completely broke them.  One of my former mechanics,  Laren van der Westhuizen, once told me that they were on the way to the track for the Russian GP.  “Oh we must be close now,” they thought as they saw Avo running in the opposite direction. Hill-up, hill-down they drove for quite a distance more before they got to the track. This was just his loosening-up run on a GP weekend.

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Tanel also inherited a lot of Avo’s training discipline. They grew up the tough, old-school way, with him not always having the latest and the best bikes. Remember that to come to a European Championship from Estonia then meant travel of up to 3000 km, and if you didn’t qualify, you packed up and went home. That instilled a toughness and a will to succeed in him, so he was always looking to find every edge that would make him move forward.  Also his dad was old school Soviet tough, and the first time I noticed him at a European Championship race on the 80cc, I saw with my own eyes how a technical paternal flat hand against the helmet could knock more than a second off a lap time.

Tinus with Tanel Leok when the latter was part of the De Carli Yamaha setup.

Another rider that we had close contact with when we moved to Belgium was Joel Smets, and of course his discipline is legendary. We actually invited him to South Africa for our team launch, and got to know him really well. He was just coming off a big injury and problems with inflammation in his thigh, if I remember correctly, and could not do high-impact training like running, so he devised alternative means.  He was a huge inspiration to Tyla at the time. I mean, the man has ridden up Mont Ventoux backwards on a bicycle twice, the last time when he was just about 50 years old. That should tell you enough.

I can only really comment on riders that I worked with closely or that stayed with me. By highlighting a few here, that does not mean that other riders did not train hard, I’m just pulling up examples that particularly stuck to my memory.

Gatedrop: Out of the riders you worked with, who did you enjoy working with the most?

It’s hard to point out one, so let me highlight a few things that I enjoyed about riders that had come through the portals over time, in order of appearance. There were many precious moments, and it would take a book to mention them all, so if I don’t mention a rider here, it does not mean that I don’t have fond memories of our interactions.

– Grant Langston for his sheer talent, impish naughtiness and sense of fun.

Nel sits down with Langston at Bercy Supercross.

– Tyla Rattray for pushing through great impediments to get to where he was (this holds true for his family as well).  He was a little teaser, always up for a laugh, and could sometimes drive his fellow competitors to distraction in a good way. Once on the bike, though, he was dead serious.

– Richard van der Westhuizen – the rider who was in my team with Tyla. He did not do much international racing, although he certainly had the talent to do so. Richard is a true gentleman of the sport, and found his niche with a motocross-related company Racestar Graffix.  He has a record number of South African titles, and that is well deserved.

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– Tanel Leok was extremely reticent when he came to our team. He was painfully shy, and almost a hermit, staying in his room all the time except for training time and when nosh was up! He came out of his shell more and more, and in time, people used to say him and I were like a married couple, bickering good naturedly all the time.  Tanel is very intelligent and well informed. I remember him as a fifteen year old schooling adults with us about the good and bad of NATO and European politics.  When the Americans were looking for a pretext to invade Iraq with the weapons of mass destruction lark, he was adamant that this is a pretext and none of those would be found. He was correct, of course, and those were great insights for a young teenager.

– Shannon Terreblanche came to my team, much like Tyla Rattray, as an underdog vis-a vis another South African rider, and like, Tyla, he prevailed in that over the long term. I never compare riders, nor disrespect riders from other teams, but sometimes these things were foisted upon us. Shannon and his family lived with me in Europe for a while, and what a pleasure that was.  He is more of a rock and roll -style rider and an insanely talented helmet designer and painter. Shannon has a great, economic riding style, and is a popular and effective trainer nowadays.

Terreblanche takes a GP holeshot

– Matiss Karro – Avo Leok phoned me and asked me if we had a spot for a very talented and dedicated rider. Matiss was only 15 years old at the time, and already had a GP qualification under the belt, with a point to follow soon. I like him a lot – he’s laconic and easy going. When he speaks, you already get the idea of what he’s like. He is slow and measured and unflappable. He was a pusher on the track, though. After the first season we had worked together a bit, they went down to Spain for winter training. I asked Tyla to keep a look out for him and take him around the track a bit. Tyla phoned me back that evening and said I must ask Matiss not to ride so close to him. So I asked him why he was riding so close to Tyla. “I was trying to pass him,” he said.

– Jan Jakobsen, an Estonian rider that is the friendliest guy with the boradest smile you can imagine. I was introduced to them by Peeter Poldaru, the owner of the Adrenalin Arena in Estonia and one of the unsung sponsorship heroes of the sport. He took me down to Avo Leok’s track to see Jan ride, but when we got there, he had packed up his 65 already. No worries, Jan quickly pushed past his dad, got the bike out of the van again, and showed me a few blistering demonstration laps. That was years ago, and we are still friends and have regular contact.

– A rider that I did not work with directly but whom I like and respect endlessly, is Tim Gajser.  I followed his exploits through results on the 65, and as soon as he moved onto 85, I made a plan to go see him in action, and trotted off to Lierop for a European Championship event. Remember that he was new to the class and up against sand masters like Jeffrey Herlings and Max Anstie, who were quite a few years older than him.  It was clear that they were racing on a very limited budget.  I phoned Shannon and his dad from there, and said “This kid is going to be world champion.”   “Oh, did he do well?” they asked. In pure numbers terms he didn’t in fact I think he was out of the points. But the pluck, the fighting instinct in deep, deep sand, and his willingness to take the battle to the big names early on in the races, impressed me endlessly. Tim is an engaging, considerate, down-to-earth person, and I got to help him by setting up a deal with the Bodo Schmidt team, so I was involved peripherally. In a sense it is a regret that I was not able to work with him closer, but we retain contact and I revel in each and every one of his achievements.

Some more Nel pieces we’ve recently published and there’s more on the way!

Tinus Nel reflects on his favourite races as team manager

Tinus Nel on running his Vangani Motocross team

Interview: Andy McKinstry